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How Kenya can win technology jobs

Two keynote speeches at the Mobile World Conference in Barcelona stood out. IBM’s chairman, president and CEO, Virginia Rometty and Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg presentations defined the future of technology.

Zuckerberg announced Facebook’s partnership with Airtel, Nokia, edX and the Government of Rwanda to provide a learning experience under a project called SocialEDU.

This pilot project will give students free access to an online education platform and will be run using low-cost smartphones and cloud services.

Zuckerberg also re-launched Internet.org, a Facebook initiative to leverage on technology and improve on affordability of Internet.

His goal is to expand the reach of the Internet to emerging markets and create better mobile experiences, optimise applications, networks, devices and services for next five billion Internet users, and make Internet access available to all.

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His top down approach is not without criticism. Analysts say he would have done more with the $19 billion used to buy WhatsApp by spending a fraction on new app developers.

He had a chance to move with a multitude of developers from the emerging markets. Often these markets are misunderstood when large organisations like Facebook rely on helicopter view of the developing world.

They may be lacking finances but it is a matter of time before its vibrant developer community begins to challenge the status quo.

IBM has rolled up its sleeves, removed its high street shoes for gum boots to walk in the mud with the developing world. Ms Rometty challenged global developers to use its cognitive supercomputer Watson, and come up with new solutions.

Watson Mobile Development Challenge leads to three eventual winning teams that will be supported through the startup stages.

IBM recognises that no one person will have the monopoly of knowledge and as such the challenge will be global. She sees three technology trends that will define the future.

These include Big data (which she refers to as the World’s next natural resource and the basis for competitive advantage), cloud computing and engagement (a new world of people enriched by knowledge, empowered by a network,” and expecting value in exchange for giving over information).

In her speech she emphasised that no organisation will survive without data and more importantly predictive data. While in the past one needed a powerful computer to crunch the numbers, in the future it will not be so.

Cognitive computing recognises natural language to the extent the farmers can ask it what type of crop he/she needs to grow in order to optimise the output of land in a particular place.

The computer will then rummage through the data and give the answer with a prescription on how to go about creating the ideal situation. One will not have to see the computer as the computing will come as a service on the mobile through the cloud. Thus enhancing knowledge and ability to engage productively.

The audience in the two keynote addresses were largely European/American and Asian (mostly Chinese) as each speaker acknowledged that it was Africa’s time now and explained their specific agenda for the continent.

To her credit, Ms Rometty has been to Africa four times in the past one year. She noted the importance of sending researchers to where the problems are unlike in the past when research centres were located far from the problems. It is why IBM set up its twelfth global research laboratory in Nairobi.

Sad part

Some in the audience may have wondered what would be Africa’s role in this emerging technological revolution. Facebook will need content to bait new customers into their platform. IBM too will need content to educate Watson.

The sad part is that as our youth search for non-existent employment, foreign firms are busy creating content for these platforms.

The only way of becoming part of the new world is for Africa to start creating content and developing revenue models around it.

Kenya having set the pace for the future through open data, it is an opportune time to leverage on the emerging technologies and come up with new innovations especially on the mobile. This is what will define the future.

There is need, therefore, for new policies around data, how we gather and disseminate it. Some of the key legislation to enable access include, the Freedom of Information and the Data Protection Bills.

The writer is a senior lecturer at the University of Nairobi and a former Information permanent secretary.

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